Reprinted from January 24, 2013, with updates.
In the 1970s and 80s, the former Coconut Island was a traditional place to raft up your boat, along with your friends’ boats, on a lazy Sunday afternoon and have a cookout on the beach while everyone swam and simply relaxed. It was a beautiful location – just north of the future Hideaway Beach, due east of Isles of Capri, situated in the mouth of the Marco River with a view to the west of the Gulf of Mexico and the setting sun. Hurricane Donna had created Coconut Island in 1960 by bisecting it and in doing so creating a new pass, now known as Capri Pass, which over time replaced the Big Marco Pass, which had previously followed the north shore of today’s Hideaway Beach, and later closed as Sanddollar Island advanced to the north. Over time Coconut Island grew smaller, shifted and moved south but was mostly stabilized by tall Australian pine trees that dominated the north end of it.
Few of the many visitors to Coconut Island, as they swam off the beach, knew that these waters formerly held hundreds of hooked sharks, and even fewer sun worshipers realized, as they lay on the beach, that they were tanning in an area where the sharks had been pulled ashore, killed, skinned and the meat butchered for sale.
The son of the local barber in the small village of Marco (now known as Old Marco), Francis Howard, was a fisherman who made his living in the shark business. Francis would take his boat offshore and, with hundreds of feet of chain, set a floating line of 50-gallon drums secured by anchors at the ends, attaching numerous strong fishing lines with large baited hooks to the chain, creating what is known as a “long-line.” Dave Johnson, who grew up in Old Marco and whose father Roger participated in the early 1960’s in some of the “sharking,” describes this type of fishing as “a trout-line on steroids.”
Francis would set his baits and would check the lines daily before returning to Marco. It was important to keep the sharks alive so that their meat would be fresh for processing and, in addition, a hooked shark could be quickly damaged. Male lemon sharks, sensing that other sharks were hooked, would often swim along the line taking a bite out of almost every other shark, damaging each hide and, upon finding a bait available, would swallow it hook and all. Upon seeing that he had enough sharks attached, Francis would release a long line and drag it with the hooked sharks behind his boat back to the beach for processing.
After a shark’s skin has been removed and dried it is known as shagreen. For many years there was no commercial market for shagreen as the skin protecting the shark has a hard exterior, horny layer with small denticles (placoid scales) that are impossible to remove by mechanical means. Shark skins were used by Southwest Florida’s native Calusa Indians as coarse sandpaper to polish wood and also by South Pacific natives as the membranes on drums. However, on April 27, 1920, shortly after WWI, a U.S. patent was obtained by Allen Rogers for the “Improvements in Treating of Shark-Skins and the like Preparatory to Tanning” allowing the removal of the “hard or horny coating known as dermal armoring.” Rogers assigned his patent to the Ocean Leather Company of New York who, for over 60 years, held a virtual monopoly on the production of shark skin. The chemical process used was to soak the skins in a solution of salt and hydrochloric acid which, after a couple of hours, dissolved the denticles, and then the hides were colored as part of the finishing process. The result were smooth skins, much more elastic than pigskin, 150 times more resistant, and sturdier than cow leather. The market for shark skin was in making cowboy boots, handbags, belts, key and lighter cases, watch straps, sandals, gun holsters, cigar cases, briefcases, wallets and purses, and the like.
In the Journal of American Leather Chemists Association, Allen Rogers, inventor of this patent, in a 1920 article wrote that after being brought to shore, the sharks were killed using an axe (later they were often shot) and stated, “Dressing starts at once. Fins and tails removed – fins tacked on a rack and allowed to dry in the sun – used by the Chinese for making soup. Fish cut down the back and circular cut around the neck and gills. Skin removed so only the holes of the pectoral fins and rectal opening remains in the pelt. Flayed skins placed in salt for 24 hours.”
Other reports said that saltwater was brushed on the skin’s surface or it was hosed well with saltwater to remove the impurities before the hides were soaked in salt brine. Upon removal they were dried in racks in the shade overnight, salted more on the flesh side with a preservative, and placed in piles about three feet high. The piles were laid out to dry for up to a week. It was a major problem if it started to rain or fresh water ran on the skins during the drying process as that would create “sour spots” or discolor them and significantly reduce their value. At one time, Ocean Leather Company was paying a 20 percent bonus for hides without any cuts or flaws. After drying, the skins were re-salted and folded into flat bundles, flesh side inwards, with the bundles wrapped so air could get in, usually with burlap, and sold that way.
Faye Dickerson Brown remembers in 1959 when she was a senior at Naples High School and her good friend Lois invited Faye to go “sharking” with Lois’s brother, Francis Howard, his wife Emily, and Lois’s sister, Lettie, and her three children. At the time Francis was using the “north beach” or what is now known as Hideaway Beach for shark processing. Faye remembers Howard bringing their party to the beach after already having pulled in a long line.
Faye describes what happened: “Francis’s wife Emily sat upon the bow of the boat and cut the shark meat up into steaks which she said they sold to the Rod & Gun Club in Everglades to be sold on the menu as swordfish steaks. Once we found something in a shark’s belly and it was sized and shaped like a man’s lower leg! We all held our breath while Francis split open the stomach and pulled out a smaller shark from the larger shark’s belly. A four-foot shark had taken the fish bait and the larger shark swallowed the smaller shark behind its head and was caught. I remember eight to ten-foot sharks, mostly Tiger, Nurse and Lemon sharks.”
Of all the Florida sharks fished for, the most sought-after and profitable was the Tiger shark. In 1968, the skin of a 12-foot Tiger shark brought a base price of $12.50, added was a bonus of 50 percent because it was a Tiger; the meat sold for at least $10; and the fins (which were small) $3 additional, resulting in more than $30 for the one catch.
Faye continues her story about that day in 1959 with her friends on north beach: “We went dressed in our swim suits and sometimes swam near where the sharks were being skinned which was a crazy thing to have done.” Apparently, they were simply following local tradition, in the 50 years previous years not much had changed.
Julian Dimock, with his father, headquartered their Everglades adventures on Marco, wrote in 1908: “In Marco women and children swim about the dock from which men are fishing for sharks, and more than once, while swimming there with my daughter, fifty feet from shore, I have seen a shark glide between us and the bank.” Clearly Dimock did not seem the least bit worried about his daughter repeatedly swimming with sharks. Today this activity seems worrisome as most people are paranoid about sharks. In earlier times, when everyone lived closer to nature, they understood that, for the most part, sharks were pretty harmless, and they held no cause for alarm. However, it is fortunate that humans do not taste as good as a tarpon, as Dimock also writes about fishing for tarpon and ending up with a shark on the line: “A fourteen-foot shark is likely to have taken in half of your six-foot tarpon at a single bite.”
Shark meat that was not good enough to be sold to restaurants could be made into fish scrap for fertilizer as it contains about 15 to 17 percent nitrogen. Another profitable part of the shark was the removal and processing of its liver. One Tiger shark caught was 7’8” long, yielded nine square feet of skin, weighed 128 pounds and its liver weighed 24 pounds – slightly over the average for Tiger sharks whose livers normally weigh about 17.5 percent of their total weight.
Inventor Allen Rogers, in 1920, again describes the process: “Livers go into a barrel to disintegrate them in steam jacketed kettles and heated to boiling for about one hour. From kettles the oil is run into washing and settling tanks where the gurry is separated, oil runs into a tank, is washed and then stored for shipment.”
Sharks are unique sea animals as they have no swim bladder and their buoyancy in water is maintained by their large livers saturated with oil. The processed oil from shark livers was used as fine machine oil or as a lubricant as it has a very low melting point and a very high boiling point. It was also used in cosmetics, skin healing and for health products. During WWII, a large boom in the business occurred as it was discovered that shark oil could be used to produce Vitamin A which helped the night vision of fighter pilots. That market collapsed when synthetic Vitamin A was discovered in 1947.
Ocean Leather Company started production around 1923 in the Florida Keys where, by 1930, they were catching and processing an average of 100 sharks a day. Almost everything connected with the sharks was used; the oil being processed by Hydenoil Products. One comment at the time about the harvesting process of sharks was that “the odor was quite strong.” By 1964, Ocean Leather Company, in its northern plant, was processing about 16,000 shark hides annually. Because 98 percent of its production was sold in Texas, the company did not try to market elsewhere as they could hardly keep up with the demand from the Lone Star State.
Dave Johnson mentioned one spectacular day of Marco sharking: “The day they brought in the Great White was quite an event. Nobody had ever seen one before. It was 19-feet long and as you can see from the photo, something pretty big as well had bit a large chunk out of its pectoral fin before it was harvested.” Presumably that bite was from a male lemon shark.
On Marco, the sharking business died off around 1963 or 1964. Dave mentions living on the north end of the Island at the time: “A little down side to the enterprise was the fact that when the wind blew from the west, the smell of those drying shark fins was strong enough in Old Marco to make you think twice about ever trying the soup!” Development was coming to Marco Island and Coconut Island itself was divided up into 100-foot strips of land and sold off as privately-owned parcels by the mid 1960s.
A major change also happened in the shark skin business: while Francis and other fishermen of his time had caught a few sharks by hooks and lines, the industry was changing, after sharking on Marco had ceased, it became routine for large vessels to net hundreds of sharks at a time. In fact, by the mid-1980’s, from its world production of shark hides, Ocean Leather Company was handling around 50,000 shark skins annually. That number probably pales by the number of sharks caught for their fins by the Chinese.
Meanwhile, the growing environmental movement did not bid well for the growing shark industry. Research revealed that sharks have a very slow growth rate, come to sexual maturity late in life and have relatively few offspring after a long gestation period. For a number of years, the number of sharks harvested was twice the number of new sharks born, creating an alarming situation.
Between 2004 and 2008, an estimated 800,000 sharks were killed by recreational fisherman off the Gulf coast and the Atlantic Ocean. Researchers from North Carolina found that when the shark population declined, the ray population increased from having no natural predators. As a result, more rays ate more bay scallops creating an economic loss of local commercial scallop fisheries. As the predator of the seas, sharks keep fish populations healthy by eating the sick or injured and by scavenging the dead.
While it is rare to see a great white shark in local waters, a large one named “Nova” weighing 1186 pounds and 11 ½ feet long, who had been first tagged in Canada waters near Nova Scotia, was in January of this year tracked heading south approximately 150 miles west of Marco Island, and by early March was south of the Dry Tortugas feeding in the Florida Current. The great white shark received its public notoriety as the most dangerous shark in the world in the 1975 movie JAWS and, other than man, an adult great white has no predators. The tiger shark ranks second and the bull shark third in the list of dangerous sharks. Because of the water depth and available food sources the east coast of Florida has many more confirmed unprovoked shark attacks, while the Florida gulf coast has relatively few. Statistics kept since 1882 show that in the last 137 years Collier County has recorded eight unprovoked shark attacks.
There are now Federal and Florida laws protecting sharks with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) listing 26 different varieties as protected species that are prohibited from all harvest, possession, landing, purchase, sale or exchange because their populations had declined by over 50 percent. The FWC earlier this year enacted numerous new regulations protecting local sharks, included a required annual shore-based shark fishing permit for all anglers, a requirement that sharks cannot be removed from the water (which crushes their internal organs and causes suffocation), and an immediate release of the protected varieties of sharks, a list that includes the great white, tiger sharks, lemon sharks, hammerheads, etc.
Ocean Leather Corporation (as it was later known) no longer exists. The decline of business in shark skins was attributed to an increased popularity of eating shark meat which required that the shark be put on ice, which spoiled the hides while the skin remained intact to protect the meat. Today, many shark products including shark skin, as well as shark cartilage pills (presumably to ward off cancer) are produced in China.
Coconut Island continued to grow smaller and smaller and shifted to the south and then completely disappeared in 2005. Coconut Island had existed for 45 years, from 1960 to 2005, and in similar fashion, the knowledge that there once was commercial shark fishing on Marco has also faded away.
I want to thank David Johnson, Faye Brown and Lois Crews for sharing their memories of Marco commercial “sharking” with me, Kay Francis for identifying some of the people in the photographs and Kathy Brock for her information on the great white shark known as Nova.